Traditional Media as Change Agent
What is the model for the project?
The "Traditional Media as Change Agent" project has its roots in systems and chaos theory as well as in participatory, values-based theories of learning. It also has its roots in Baha'i spiritual principles such as the innate equality of men and women, the importance of consultation to human decision-making, independent investigation of truth, unity in diversity and the central importance of education and vision in human life. The model is characterized by the fact that it is non-linear with complex feedback loops. Its main feature is resiliency rather than stability.
Elements of the new model include empathy, connection, relationship, context, community, and initiative. Traditional models of behavior change entail detachment and neutrality and are mechanistic and unsustainable. It shares with behavior models the goal that change through development is desirable. The sustainable model places its emphasis on paradox. It is open-ended so that the community may develop its own vision and so that the vision can be flexible and changeable, but at the same time the model remains goals-oriented. Its goals are determined by the understanding of the communities involved.
It is driven by three assumptions:
- That people have an overwhelming need for meaningfulness in their lives which is reflected in their behavior and frames the values they live by.
- That communities and individuals are characterized by elasticity. When they themselves perceive the need for change and can see the benefits to be derived from change, they will change, at a pace and in conformity to their own internal visions.
- The participatory nature of reality assumes the paramount importance of relationships. People have a strong desire for recognition and connectedness. The more they feel part of their own process of development the more they will get the work done.
The "Traditional Media as Change Agent Project" is an interesting example of the "ownership" model in action. This model, which is now enjoying limited exposure is receiving attention precisely because the participation of communities leading to "ownership" is perceived as more sustainable than models heretofore used by development practitioners. The gap between policy and practice has been well documented in development. One of the distinguishing features of this project, from the beginning, is the local grassroots interest and involvement in all phases. This participation in decision-making, implementation, benefits and evaluation demands a greater concentration of resources at project outset.
In practical terms the project teaches communities three productive habits for sustainability:
- Critical thinking
- Creative Thinking
What are the project's objectives?
The "Traditional Media as Change Agent" project has as its primary goal the improvement and enhancement of women's status in the community. It promises neither improved income, nor agriculture, nor provides a concrete product, such as contraception or cook stoves. Its premise is that women's status is defined through the complex web of social, cultural and religious values superimposed on labor needs in a community. To change women's status, therefore, requires more than simply altering some aspect of labor activity, or even increasing income. It requires a reevaluation by the community itself of their core values, assessing them in light of their present and future needs. It also requires much consultation with men, who, as monitors of the status quo in their communities, need to be convinced that change in women's status is beneficial for the general good of the community, even if it causes short-term hardships. Another way of stating this is that individuals and communities must independently investigate truth for themselves, accept its validity in their own lives and realign their values, attitudes and behaviors to reflect the new reality.
That communities rarely examine their core values need not be overstated. The project chose to use traditional media as a means of exploring how these values came into being and how they function within present society because folk tales, songs, folk characters, jokes are vehicles by which societies reinforce and shape values. The project then works with communities in shaping their vision of the future and how women fit into that vision, as participators and producers, not as victims.
How does the project accomplish this?
In each country in which the project functions, an initial workshop is held that explores with the participants a methodology for bringing meaning into exploring gender issues. Four major points are explored:
- Valuing and eliciting prior knowledge about gender issues.
- Organizing that knowledge in the current social context
- Visioning that knowledge in a future social context
- Developing lines of action that lead from the present incrementally to the future.
Key to the process is the meaningful use of knowledge. Decision-making, experimental inquiry, investigation, problem-solving, invention are all highly complex tasks done more efficiently by cooperative groups than by an individual, simply because these tasks are so taxing in terms of the knowledge and ability they require to be effectively completed. The methodology throughout is a systematic application of the consultative process. This project has focused on the group (community) as the fundamental unit rather than individuals. Not only has it validated the above but the cooperative process is more suited to gender issues. Women work better in groups.
The workshop content then discusses the present state of women in the community (providing statistics); the various means by which women's status is determined (legislation, religious doctrine, tradition, family and personal preference); the relationship between that status and the developmental level of the community; how to assess women's status in a community (introduction to qualitative research); how to use and analyze that data; and how to get community consultation to develop unity of thought on the problem; how to develop a vision of where the community hopes to be within a determined period; and finally how to plan the intervening steps required to realize those visions.
In each of these workshops the trainers utilized are highly skilled both in the content area and as trainers. A variety of methodologies are used and the evaluations of the training program have indicated universal approval. Only one problematic area has emerged which is the use of research as a decision-making tool. Experience has shown, in every country, that there is no substitute for the primacy of personal contact among implementors (community members) and between implementors, planners and consultants, if the difficult process of unlearning old rules and learning the new ones is to occur. In reality, projects are characterized by the absence of such opportunities on a regular basis during implementation. The "ownership" model is based on the strong conviction that ordinary people have unique abilities to solve their own problems. Given time and core development skills (communication, management, research) they can face their own problems and establish solutions.
Who are the participating communities?
Most of the communities in which the project functions are composed of semi-literate or illiterate persons who have consulted and made decisions before but have never formalized the gathering of information on which these decisions are based. The process of a focus group in which the facilitator does not provide opinion but simply keeps the discussion flowing is difficult. In many cases the community facilitators are people of high status in their communities and find themselves frustrated at not being permitted to be prescriptive in their discussion groups. Once they learn the process, however, they quickly see the value of it. Amongst the Malaysian LSAs the use of FGDs has become commonplace for decision-makers for most decisions that have to be made, not just those concerning women.
The participants in these workshops and the focus of the project are the community leaders. Using the Local Spiritual Assembly as the base, the project also embraces other community-based groups such as the Syndicate in Bolivia, the Village Committee in Sarawak and the Headmen and elders of traditional African society. Besides community leaders the project also works with women, both nationally and locally.
The project coordinators include one Quechua woman in Bolivia; one Chinese woman in Kuala Lumpur; and an Iban (Dayak) woman in Sarawak; and one man in Cameroon.
Rural communities tend to be agricultural, but one project site is located in a middle class urban community. Research showed in Malaysia that, as women move up the ladder from poverty to middle-class, they sometimes lose status, becoming submerged in their husband's identity. Additionally women themselves saw their roles as more submissive and less independent.
What results can be seen to date?
One premise of the project was that change is not necessarily easy and can involve hardship and turmoil. Several of the communities in which the project is functioning are going through the frustrating process of having awakened to their own inadequacies, but not yet fully realizing their own strengths in terms of solving the problems. The local community in Bolivia has consulted extensively about gender issues, has become genuinely sensitive to the need to alter their social and personal attitudes towards women. Individually women report that the behavior of their husbands has changed substantially. Men do not necessarily report that they are happy with the change. Women report that their grown daughters are showing more confidence in accepting public responsibility, speaking up at public meetings and actively seeking self-improvement (correspondence courses, literacy classes, etc.).
In Cameroon there is ample evidence to indicate that husband/wife relationships are characterized by more open consultation on issues of importance. The basic appreciation of the importance of gender issues and of the essential contributions women make to the welfare of families and communities is gradually becoming apparent to all. Contacts with other agencies, governmental and non-governmental, have increased and project participants are pleasantly shocked at the intense interest their project arouses. Concrete actions such as the formation of community crèches to take care of children while women are working in the fields, establishing literacy programs for women, establishing maternal and child health programs and improving nutrition through the improvement of kitchen gardens are evidence of some of the communal and individual changes that are taking place.
In Malaysia awareness has caused discomfiture in some circles but has also led to a collective will to improve. In concrete actions this has resulted in newsletters, conferences, symposia on gender issues and the expansion of project sites to other locales. Newspapers and the press have been courted on this issue and families also report improved familial consultation.
Whether this has led to increased status in the community will be determined at the time of the evaluations scheduled for Fall 1993. At the outset of the projects indicators of status were established with community members at each workshop. They tended to be generic and included such universal indicators as wealth, position, lineage, decision-making capacity, authority, marriage, numbers of children, etc. In several communities women could not be found that fitted these descriptions. It will be interesting to note whether at the end of two years of emphasis on women, how many they can now name.
Interestingly, there has been little formalized opposition to any of the work accomplished by the project. No conflicts have arisen. Husbands have not objected to their wives accepting nontraditional roles (for those few women who have suddenly found themselves serving in a decision-making capacity) or even for those women whose home lives may have altered to share labor more equally with their husbands or consult more frequently as has been reported in many communities.
Some resistance has been encountered at the National level in two countries and it has become a lesson learned. Where a National Agency throws its entire support behind an activity, its chances for success multiply dramatically. Conversely where there is little perceived support problems arise. In Cameroon the NSA has been extremely supportive. Workshops have been given for the NSA itself as well as for community groups. The local coordinator of the project is himself Chairman of the NSA and thus it is an agenda item on every occasion that the NSA meets. Because of the NSA support, contact with other development agencies (Government, NGO and donors) has been maintained and informal information sharing takes place. Mainstreaming rapidly takes place too, as these same people recognize the commitment to the objectives of raising the status of women and offer their own resources bringing to scale the small efforts initially established.
In Malaysia and Bolivia, the NSAs are overburdened with other tasks and have preferred to leave the promotion of the project to their designated representatives. While there is no opposition from these bodies, quite the contrary, the lack of direct participation has resulted in slower decision-making, lack of feedback to the community, and occasionally mixed messages, as when project personnel are suddenly transferred to another locale for another purpose.
Lack of time needed to learn the research concepts is also a problem. Formalized research is a relatively new activity and the skills needed to become effective facilitators require practice. When expert technical assistance consultants have limited resources (time and money) to spend in a country, this activity is frequently condensed and suffers as a consequence.
The importance of service to the larger community is a relatively new experience to the Baha'i community. Although theoretically aware that philanthropic activities of the Baha'i community were intended for all, in practice, in the past and partially due to limited resources, it has been reserved for the Baha'i community. Reaching out has been an interesting experience on both sides. Some communities of other Faiths have shown initial reluctance to participate in the project, but have come around as word spreads of its essentially humanistic goal. In other communities secular/political groups have experienced suspicion at being aligned with a Faith group (as in Bolivia). Mutual respect for the skills that are being transferred has diminished this suspicion over time.
The project is a highly innovative response to an entrenched social problem. The complexity of the social construct of gender, the way a society determines roles for men and women has yet to penetrate development and this project is a pioneering attempt to do just that. The situation of women differs widely across cultures and there are no universal solutions and no universal models for dealing with these issues. In this project certain universal principles have been formulated into a model which itself has been adapted in each of the countries in which it is used. By the end of the project it should be apparent whether this model and its basic tenets have started significant, sustainable, patterns of behavior change.
UN Document #UNIFEM/BIC GLO/91/W1